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Section 706 Issues Still Attract Some Debate

Randy Sukow / Sep 8, 2016

The FCC is in the middle of its annual ritual of pretending to consider the Section 706 question. Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 directs the Commission to periodically assess the growth of broadband Internet availablity and determine whether broadband is reaching “all Americans” in a “reasonable and timely fashion.” If its finding is in the negative, the law gives the FCC broad authority to make changes.

The current FCC has used negative Section 706 findings in recent years to get its net neutrality rules through judicial scrutiny (successfully) and preempt state laws regarding municipal ownership of broadband services (unsuccessfully). With such a powerful tool, another negative ruling is a foregone conclusion.

The lack of suspense seems to have cut down on the number of organizations responding to the latest Section 706 notice of inquiry (NOI). There were fewer than 25. But a few commenters from the rural telco and utility worlds did use the opportunity to air their opinions.

  • USTelecom:  It citied the most recent data from the federal government’s National Broadband Map to show that 96 percent of U.S. households have access to at least one wireline broadband provider and 99 percent have access to at least one wireless provider. Between wireline, wireless and satellite, nearly every household has multiple choices. “Broadband providers invest more than $70 billion per year to deploy and upgrade their networks. As a result, broadband capacity is steadily expanding, with increasingly powerful broadband networks being made available to a larger portion of Americans,” the association said. Nevertheless, anticipating a negative finding on the Section 706 question, USTelecom asked the FCC to take action to remove barriers to future investment, such as imposing latency requirements to go along with the current 25 Mbps downstream /3 Mbps upstream speed benchmark. “Such requirements seem far removed from the core section 706 inquiry, which looks at the reasonableness and timeliness of broadband deployment,” it said.
  • Utilities Technology Council (UTC):  The Commission should not only impose a latency benchmark (less than 100 milliseconds), but increase the speed benchmark to 50 Mbps downstream, UTC said. “Of particular importance to many UTC members – especially to the rural electric cooperative members of UTC who are deploying fiber-to-the-home broadband to their members – is the persistent urban-rural divide. Thirty-nine percent (about 24 million) of Americans living in rural areas lack access to advanced telecommunications capability, as compared to 4 percent of Americans living in urban areas – making Americans living in a rural area 10 times more likely to be denied access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps broadband,” it said. It faulted price cap telcos and cable companies for dragging their feet about building in rural areas and praised utilities that have gone forward with rural fiber optic services.
  • ViaSat:  A latency threshold is unnecessary “particularly given that: (i) a very small, and ever-decreasing, percentage of Internet traffic is at all latency-sensitive and (ii) the impact of latency, if any, can be offset through appropriate network design,” ViaSat said. The company also disputed an FCC finding in the NOI that no satellite broadband services today can provide 25/3 Mbps service and noted that satellite speeds will reach 100 Mbps downstream after the launch of ViaSat-2 and ViaSat-3 satellites over the next three years. It said that it encourages evaluation of satellite broadband performance to terrestrial performance using the same criteria. “Many networks that are nominally ‘capacity-rich’ [including fiber-to-the-node networks] can experience significant congestion issues and ‘bottlenecks,’ which can significantly limit the speed and other benefits supposedly available over those networks,” it said. Satellite networks with downstream signals directly to subscribers, bypass those bottlenecks.

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